Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Putting the Pi in paella

One of the virtues of eating in restaurants, whether home or away, is that you can have something that you'd never make for yourself. When the local dish is complicated, or it has to be made in large quantities, or needs a pan you don't have, or it contains a lot of something that you don't normally have around the house, you should be sure to look for it when you're traveling.

In Spain, paella is that dish. Like tagine in Morocco or casserole at home, paella is named for the cooking vessel it uses. The paella pan can be as small as a stove burner and as large as 20 meters (more than 65 feet) in diameter. We know this because a paella of that size is listed in the Guinness Book of Records and fed more than 100,000 people. That's a big dish. It's often cooked outdoors, and guests have been known to eat it right out of the pan.

Though it's widely believed that paella is Spain's national dish, Spaniards associate it regionally with its birthplace in Valencia. The Valencian and therefore official version of paella contains some ingredients you might not want to ponder while you're eating this delightful dish: chicken, rabbit, and land snails, flat beans, large white beans, and other beans, and saffron, which gives it a delicate flavor and that rusty, caramelized color. Yes, there are snails in this dish, and this might explain the gigantic bags of snails that are piled on every seafood counter in Spanish markets. On the plus side, early versions of the dish contained water vole (a rodent) and eel, and lucky for us, that's not how paella is made anymore.

An alternate version of the dish uses seafood instead of meat, and is often available alongside Valencian paella in restaurants, as is shown above. Valencian paella is on the left side of this photo, and seafood paella is on the right. There's a "mixed" version that can include sausage, a variety of vegetables, and even different seasonings. You'll find that version elsewhere in Spain and around the world, but it horrifies Valencians. Somehow sausage and seafood doesn't work for them, but eel and marsh rats are a match made in heaven. In any case, I'm nearly positive I'll never cook paella. But it's a joy to let someone else do it.

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